If I Could Do One Thing to Make the World a Healthier Place

By Ulfat Shaikh, MD

Originally posted May 18, 2014

As a pediatrician, it is sobering to realize that the factor with the highest impact on my young patients’ health is not a clinical breakthrough. It is whether they and their parents complete high school. Even after taking income or race into account, educational attainment, or the years of schooling an individual has, remains one of the strongest social determinants of health.

People with more years of schooling don’t just prosper. They live longer. They exercise more, eat healthier food, don’t smoke, get regular health care, and have better health outcomes. College graduates live at least 5 years longer than people who do not finish high school.

The effect of education is pronounced when you look at female education. Women with just a few years of schooling are likelier than those with no education to use contraception, marry later in life, space their pregnancies, and survive childbirth. They are more attuned to their children’s health needs and are more aware of how to reduce transmission of HIV to their infants.

The math is convincing. Each additional year of school that a girl attends, reduces the likelihood of her future infant dying by 5-10 percent. It is estimated that 1.8 million more children would survive in sub-Saharan Africa if their mothers had received at least a secondary education.

Children of mothers with more schooling are more likely to survive past the age of five and be vaccinated, and less likely to be stunted due to undernourishment. They grow up to be healthier and more educated adults, thus breaking the vicious cycle of lower education, poor maternal health, and child morbidity.

Education affects our health in more ways than one. The most straightforward mechanism is its effect on employment, income, working conditions, employment-related benefits, and the ability to live in safer neighborhoods. But education also brings with it greater health literacy and enables personal decision-making when it comes to choosing a healthier lifestyle or managing medical issues. Educational attainment positively affects social and psychological well-being through stronger social networks, increased ability to cope with stress, and a greater sense of control over one’s life.

The recent abduction of nearly 300 girls in Nigeria by extremists resulted in an appropriately vocal worldwide responses to this horrifying human rights violation. But keep in mind that attacks against schools, students, and teachers, contesting the universal right to education still occur with regularity all over the world.

An African proverb says, “Educate a boy and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate a community.” Here is a poignant video from the girl effect that brings home this message.

Shaikh-Ulfat Shaikh, MD, MPH, MS is director of health care quality at the University of California Davis School of Medicine. She blogs about health care quality improvement at Pulse.

 

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